The old Boss is back

The Yankees are George Steinbrenner's team, more than at any time since 1990. The Boss negotiated Gary Sheffield's contract personally last week, meeting the slugger in Tampa, Fla. and allowing him to choose from three proposals.

And in the last year, Steinbrenner was the driving force behind the deals for third baseman Aaron Boone and pitchers Chris Hammond and Jose Contreras. He wanted outfielder Raul Mondesi in 2002, and he got him.

There was a time when Steinbrenner deferred to his underlings. Gene Michael, the Yankees' general manager for five seasons, and Brian Cashman, who took over as GM in 1998, fought to keep Steinbrenner tethered to a measured course of management. They wanted to develop good and cheap, young talent, they looked for players who fit New York, and they stood their ground. Steinbrenner usually backed off. Because of that, Bernie Williams was not traded in 1994, Andy Pettitte in 1999 and Alfonso Soriano in 2000.

Steinbrenner occasionally stepped in and pushed through a smaller move, such as the signing of Dwight Gooden in 2000. But by and large, the professionals rebuilt and refined the team, the Yankees won four championships in five seasons from 1996-2000 and began making the playoffs every year, after failing to advance to the postseason for 14 years. After losing the 1981 World Series, they had stayed home in October until 1995.

But the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series to Arizona and Steinbrenner determined that his executives could not be trusted. He met David Wells for lunch and signed the left-handed pitcher to a two-year contract, a deal that worked out for the Yankees. Others have not. Slowly, Steinbrenner's vision for a championship team has begun taking shape.

Sheffield will get a three-year deal and it's possible that within that time frame, he will be one of four excellent candidates to be the Yankees' designated hitter. He's 35 years old, adequate defensively. First baseman Jason Giambi is almost 32 and moves like somebody 10 years older: he has a damaged knee mostly unaided by recent surgery, and is so immobile that he couldn't start Game 5 of the World Series.

There is talk that Williams, also 35, might have to move out of center field because of shoulder and knee trouble; he could shift to DH if the Yankees sign Kenny Lofton. But then, where would Giambi play if he can't play first base? Or catcher Jorge Posada, who might begin feeling the effects of a heavy workload in the next couple of seasons? Or Sheffield, if age or injury overcome him?

Steinbrenner apparently was unconcerned about Sheffield's history of unhappiness and intermittent effort. Sheffield does have great stats, something that many of the championship Yankees did not have.

The Yankees are paying about $10 million for third basemen next season, the combined salaries of Boone and Drew Henson, and Boone is a free-swinger who was almost completely overmatched in the postseason, save for one Tim Wakefield knuckler.

The Yankees signed one right-handed set-up man -- 36-year-old Tom Gordon. They are also close to signing another righty reliever -- 35-year-old Paul Quantrill. That's because the army of middle relievers the Yankees have tried in the latest Steinbrenner era have either been hit with injury or been ineffective. If you project Contreras for the bullpen -- the role in which he served during the postseason, then the Yankees will have about $25 million in middle relief, or about $5 million less than the Brewers will pay their entire team.

But Contreras is probably headed to the starting rotation, once the pride of the Yankees. There's Mike Mussina and probably Pettitte, once he reconsiders his flirtation with Houston, and maybe Contreras and maybe Jon Lieber and perhaps Jeff Weaver and even Wells (if he re-signs).

There are question marks and Steinbrenner doesn't like question marks, and so the Yankees owner may throw another $40 million at talented Bartolo Colon, whose weight problem remains a question. Steinbrenner might negotiate that deal himself, as well. They need a young, cheap starter. Too bad that Brandon Claussen, left-handed and a hard-thrower and graced with a maturity that greatly impressed the Yankees' coaching staff, went to Cincinnati for Boone.

It all seems familiar. From 1976-1981 -- a period of six years -- the Yankees had dominant pitching, with Sparky Lyle and Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter, won two World Series and played in two others and made the playoffs every year but one. Steinbrenner asserted even greater control, lured free agents, stripped the farm system. By 1983 the Yankees had a lineup of Roy Smalleys and Steve Kemps, aging hitters who had seen their best years, and by 1986 the Yankees' leading starter was Dennis Rasmussen, an 18-game winner; no other pitcher won 10 games.

Steinbrenner was running the show, and the Yankees' victory total declined. Ninety wins in 1986, then 89 victories, 85, 74, and 67. That's when Steinbrenner was suspended, and Michael became general manager.

But Steinbrenner's in charge now. More than ever.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.